Feb 16 2004

Breakfast with an Israeli friend

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Palestinian politics

It started with an email from an Israeli friend who wanted to know my thoughts about Ariel Sharon’s plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza. I paid little attention to the question – apparently a big deal for Israelis. On further thought, I emailed back that it might be interesting if real, and suggested a face-to-face meeting.

We met for breakfast at a caf in west Jerusalem. After some pleasantries we quickly got into the subject. My Israeli friend seemed anxious. He wanted to know why Palestinians were leaving Sharon the freedom to do what he wants.

“Our opinion is not so important,” I answered to my friend’s surprise. “The Israelis are used to negotiating between themselves. They are either negotiating between Labor and Likud, or between Likud and the settlers, or with the Americans. We are not even part of their negotiations.”

My Israeli friend didn’t disagree, but was saved from having to respond by the arrival of our waitress. We both ordered the mushroom omelette and I continued my argument.

“You Israelis have a choice to stay or to leave, but we have no choice. We have no real power to force a change, and we are living on our land waiting for the Israelis to make the move.”

“You do have a choice,” my Israeli friend replied. “You can choose between Sharon’s unilateral plan and the road map.”

Again I disagree. Who stopped the road map? The Israelis, I insist.

“No way. You don’t think that the road map failed because of those few outposts,” he insisted.

“It wasn’t just the outposts, it was the failure to immediately end all settlement activities including expanding settlements, and of course the most crazy act of building the wall.”

I also remind my Israeli friend that Sharon listed 14 reservations about the road map, while the Palestinians accepted it without any.

But my friend insisted that Palestinians do have a choice. If they had acted against terror they would have put Sharon in a position much different than the one he is in now.

I say: “First, no Palestinian leader can begin a civil war over a promise that is hardly reliable. Secondly, Israelis are the ones who are refusing to negotiate. Thirdly, Israel continues to refuse a cease-fire agreement. How can we stop the bloodshed while Israel refuses to be party to a cease-fire agreement which has to be bilateral, guaranteed by an outside neutral force and be followed by a serious negotiating effort?”

I continue with my argument: “You say that Palestinians have a choice, namely to implement the road map rather than allow the unilateral Gaza plan to go forward. Let us say we implement the road map, can you guarantee that Palestinians will have an independent state on the ’67 borders?”

Plainly, the Israeli track record has not been very encouraging.

My astute friend responds that Palestinians have consistently rejected offers they later wished they could have obtained.

I had to agree, but we work on a different time-cycle and political framework than Israelis.

“For us, our strength is our presence on our land and our unity. Our unity will not be compromised over a dubious promise from an Israeli with a terrible record toward Palestinians and their rights,” I argue.

THE OMELETTES arrive. We begin eating quietly, but quickly move into a new disagreement. My Israeli friend refuses any attempt to compare the killing of Israelis with settlement activity.

“You are always thinking,” I reply “of personal rights, and therefore you give priority to any violation of individual rights. On the other hand, we give priority to community or collective rights.” I try to explain that for Palestinians the building of settlements is a violation of our national rights and killing our future as a people and a nation.

My friend discovers a piece of glass in his omelette and returns the dish to the waitress.

As he discusses this discovery with restaurant staff, I wonder what I really think about the Israeli prime minister’s idea of unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. In principle, I like the idea because it means that we will finally begin the process of Israeli military withdrawals without having to pay a political price over an unknown future agreement.

On the other hand, I know quite well that with this gain of settler-free Gaza territory we will pay a high price as Israelis dig in their heels even deeper on the West Bank.

Once my friend sorts out the glass-in-the omelette ordeal, I explain that for Palestinians the greatest danger has always been the building of settlements on our land. It is settlement building which has been the biggest blow to any hope for an independent Palestinian state.

I told him that if the Jewish settlement drive has ebbed, as may be deduced from the decision regarding Gaza, Palestinians will have the time and patience to wait Israelis out until they understand that to achieve an agreement Israel must come to terms with our aspirations.

“We might not have the military or political power to get what we want, but we have the negative power to oppose any deal that doesn’t meet our minimum demands,” I tell him.

We left the restaurant without having resolved all our political disagreements. It was not clear whether my friend would return to this particular restaurant, but I was certain that we could continue our discussions in the future.

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